The next in our series of interviews with Ballina Council hopefuls for the December election features Cr Jeff Johnson, who is also nominating for mayor after thirteen years service on council.
The Echo asked Cr Johnson what he saw as the biggest challenges for Ballina going forward. ‘Climate change, affordable housing and ensuring that community infrastructure and services are improved as our community grows,’ he said.
Regarding his mayoral ambitions, Cr Johnson said, ‘I came second last time to David Wright, the current mayor, and I believe I can go one better this time. I think it’s time for a new mayor, new leadership and a generational change on council.’
Jeff Johnson has previously served as deputy mayor, and believes he is well equipped to lead a council that works together to address the key issues faced by a growing and ageing population. ‘I am very motivated to make the Ballina Shire the jewel in the Northern Rivers crown and an even better place to live,’ he said.
What do you see as the highlights of your time on council so far?
Cr Johnson said, ‘Being one of the Ballina Shire organisers for the Lock The Gate/Gasfield Free campaign was definitely a highlight. Being a part of that community experience and stopping the threat of coal seam gas will be forever remembered.
‘Pushing for the closure of the toxic bitumen plant at Alstonville has been another long term project that has finally succeeded.’
Other highlights mentioned by Jeff Johnson include increasing grants to community groups and achieving greater funding for community infrastructure projects such as cycleways, footpaths and playgrounds, as well as the completion of the Ballina Indoor Sports Centre.
What decisions did you get the most flak for?
Cr Johnson remembers when he put forward a motion to not renew the lease for Boral’s bitumen plant at Alstonville, ‘the council gallery was filled with yellow high vis shirts and an angry mob.
‘It turned out there were more high vis people there than actual Boral employees, so it was clearly an orchestrated move by Boral to bully and intimidate the councillors. Unfortunately it worked and the majority of councillors didn’t support me,’ he said.
‘Boral was granted an additional five year lease to continue making the toxic hot mix bitumen in the middle of the residential area of Alstonville.’
By contrast, Jeff Johnson remembers the campaign against coal seam gas having overwhelming community support.
‘Seeing the community come together to fight that was an inspiration,’ he said.
‘Yolanda and I had a tent set up at Bentley for the last few weeks of the campaign and we used to head out there quite often so we could be there in the mornings to show solidarity with the community and to add to the numbers.
‘It was hard working all day and then heading out there in the early evening but it was well worth it. Our community inspired many others in Australia and around the world,’ he said.
What’s been frustrating, and why?
Cr Johnson told The Echo that having council support the conversion of farmland at Tintenbar/Cumbalum into small residential blocks and urban sprawl across the shire was at the top of his list.
‘This dramatic increase in our population is already having a negative impact in terms of increased traffic congestion and a need to upgrade infrastructure and services,’ he said.
‘The state government imposed “developer contributions” (capped at $25,000 per block in 2009) are nowhere near the actual cost of providing the services and infrastructure, so this urban sprawl is being subsidised by all existing ratepayers while the developers get rich.
‘For the CURA A rezoning (five years ago) council staff estimated that the short fall in contributions was $7.5 million. Existing ratepayers will need to fund that short fall. I will never support decisions like that.
‘The rezoning stage is basically the only part of the process that council has the final say on, and I believe Ballina Council let our community down by supporting it,’ he said.
What could local government in Ballina do better?
Cr Johnson said, ‘Definitely community consultation and engagement. When a consultation process doesn’t get enough responses, council needs to look at alternative ways to engage with the community rather than vote on a decision that might not have the support.’
With water security dominating many council discussions over the last twelve months, Jeff Johnson has been vocal in this debate, and dismayed at the approach of his fellow councillors.
‘Water security is a big issue for all communities,’ he said. ‘It’s a shame that the debate seems to have been hijacked by politics and councillor candidates seeking to use the issue for political advantage. Scaring the community with deliberate misinformation on such an important issue is a new low.’
‘It’s time we looked at closing the loop with our water rather than just building larger dams or unsustainably tapping into the aquifers for a single use water management strategy,’ said Cr Johnson.
‘A major focus should be on plugging the leaks, currently there is more water that goes unaccounted for through leaking pipes than is predicted to be needed through population growth.
‘When you fix the leaks, add more rainwater tanks, initiate stormwater harvesting (like they do in Warrnambool) and expand the dual reticulation network, you end up with a much more secure water supply,’ he said.
‘Building an expensive overflow dam in a small catchment area in another shire isn’t the best way to spend money or to secure our long term water supply. That’s not just my opinion, it’s the opinion of all the experts.’
‘Clearly there are councillors looking to use water security as a wedge issue at this election,’ said Cr Johnson.
‘The worst example of this is Cr Sharon Cadwallader, who is as one of Ballina Council’s Rous delegates. Sharon should have read all the reports. She’s had countless opportunities to attend briefings on this issue.
‘Some of the information she is distributing can only be described as fear mongering and deliberately misleading.’
How do you see local government’s relationship with the business community?
‘It could always be better,’ said Cr Johnson, who also runs Premium Solar & Electrical in Ballina.
‘Small business is the main driver of economic growth and employment. As a small business owner and employer, I understand the pressure that many businesses have been under, particularly over the last couple of years.
‘When you understand that people depend on these jobs to pay their mortgages and to put food on the table you just have to succeed. Without great staff, a small business can easily run into trouble.
‘Local government can definitely do more with regards to “buying local” campaigns, supporting more local events and festivals, and if needed, providing incentives for employment generating industries to set up in our region.’
How do you approach dealing with councillors who have different opinions?
‘I pride myself on addressing the issues and articulating why I either support or not support certain proposals or initiatives,’ said Cr Johnson. ‘You never know when you might need someone’s support, so it’s best not to get personal when you disagree on something.
‘It’s healthy to have a diversity of opinions and a group of councillors who can respect and accept that.’
In terms of Ballina’s relationship with neighbouring shires, Cr Johnson said, ‘I would like the Northern Rivers councils to work better together and lobby more effectively as a region.
‘I think there could be a lot more information sharing and embracing ideas or policies that are working well for other councils.’
Are you interested in representing Ballina on Rous Country Council?
Cr Johnson said, ‘I would definitely welcome the opportunity to be one of Ballina’s Rous representatives. I’m passionate about water, sustainability, planning for a changing climate and ensuring we manage our resources better in the future.
‘The single use “just flush it down the toilet and into our creeks and waterways” approach is not the way to manage such a precious resource.’
In terms of political ambitions beyond local government, Cr Johnson told The Echo, ‘I’ve previously stood as an independent candidate at state level and as a Greens candidate in the federal seat of Page back in 2010.
‘I am most certainly interested in state and federal issues but I’ve got a young family and a local business now and couldn’t think of anything worse that to have to travel to Sydney or Canberra for work all the time.
‘I still feel that there is a lot of positive change I can help facilitate on Ballina Council and being mayor would be an honour and a role that I would dedicate my time to,’ he said.
Cr Johnson said he originally got involved with local government because of his passion for the environment and social change. He remembers, ‘When I was studying for my Business degree at SCU I completed an Industrial Relations unit at the same time as John Howard was trying to introduce Work Choices.
‘I helped organise a rally in Byron at the time and got local union leaders and other speakers involved. I enjoy organising things like that. I’ve been involved with many campaigns and actions over the years,’ he said.
‘Standing for council felt like another way to progress environmental and social change at the local level.’
Looking back now on his decision to join the council fray, Jeff Johnson told The Echo, ‘After twelve years as a councillor and one year as Deputy Mayor I’m as passionate as ever about local government.
‘It’s been very frustrating at times and quite a culture shock at first. I think the average age of councillors on Ballina was about 70 when I was first elected. Having a young family now only drives me more to be involved and to try and make our community a better place to live.
‘I feel that we are the caretakers for the generations to come and there is a lot of work to do to ensure the world they inherit is as good, if not better, than the one we inherited.
‘I’ve driven most environmental and social initiatives on council over the last thirteen years including getting the council to support the aim of becoming carbon neutral back in 2008. The time has come to fulfill that aim and I want to continue to drive that change within council.’
Have you got any comments about the local tourism industry, particularly in relation to the COVID issue?
‘The tourism and hospitality sectors have taken a massive hit over the last two years,’ said Cr Johnson. ‘There are so many jobs in those industries that we need to support, otherwise many in our community will suffer. This needs to be the focus of all three levels of government.
‘We have it all up here; the climate, beaches, forests, rivers and one of the most creative and welcoming communities. There is a lot to look forward to ,but support in the short term is a must to ensure there aren’t massive job losses and vacant shops,’ he said.
‘I’m sure once everything opens up again our region will bounce back quicker than lots of other areas.’
What about the growing film/TV industry in the region?
‘I’m a massive supporter of the arts and creative industries,’ said Cr Johnson. ‘Film and TV productions support so many existing businesses as well as creating so many other jobs.
‘We have so many people in our region who already work in the film industry, so the more support government can provide the better. Having said that, there needs to be a balance when it comes to filming in public places to ensure that any negative impact or reduced access to public places is kept to a minimum.’
Time for change?
Cr Johnson told The Echo, ‘I feel that the time is right for a generational change on Ballina Council. I’ve got the experience, both on council and professionally, to lead the next council forward.
‘As a local business owner and father of two young children I see the challenges our community is facing, as well as the opportunities to make our region an even better place to live and a region we can all feel very proud of.’
Jeff Johnson invites voters to hear more about his activities on council and his plans for the next term by following his Facebook page, Councillor Jeff Johnson.
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